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Math Standards of Learning pass rates for first-time test takers tanked this winter, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

Under a new Math SOL exam, which is based on the 2009 Mathematics SOL Curriculum Framework, pass rates in Algebra I went from 84 percent in fall 2010 to 49 percent in fall 2011. Pass rates also declined in Geometry and Algebra II, which saw a 15.5 percent and 30.8 percent increase respectively in student failures.

Educators across the state are complaining that the new math SOLs show a greater value of endurance over skill and have set students up to fail.

“…The latest battery of math SOL tests have not been fair to teachers or students,” Colonial Heights Superintendent Joseph O. Cox told the Virginia Board of Education during a meeting last Thursday. “Indeed, rigor in this case seems to be redefined as setting students up for failure.”

The new exam took students as long as four to six hours to complete, Cox told the Board. Across the state, educators are complaining about the new exam saying the state test preparation resources were inadequate and untimely and that the cut scores the scores that mark a student’s test as pass or fail were set artificially high.

New math SOL exams were given for the first time in late November and December to 24,000 middle and high school students enrolled in fall semester Algebra I, geometry and Algebra II classes. New tests for third grade through eighth grade will debut this spring, according to the Department of Education.

Colonial Heights High School math teacher Amy Crafton told Board of Education members that while normally her students have done very well on the state’s SOLs, this year students were stressed after taking the exam.

“Students who took the test and failed were very upset. They felt dumb and unsuccessful. It took many of the honors students over three hours to complete the test,” she said. “Many of them have never failed an SOL test before… After being given the expedited retake, some students were in tears when they failed the test a second time. If I prepared my students for a test the way the state department prepared teachers this year for the SOL test, I would expect to be fired.”

Many of those who failed the SOL this year were ‘A’ and ‘B’- receiving honors students, Crafton said.

“It is a crime to make students feel so poorly about themselves when they are not at fault,” she said.

In Fairfax County, only Edison High School, which is on a semester course schedule rather than yearlong, has taken the math SOLs.

Edison Math Department Head Joe Adelman said students and teachers would have been more prepared for the new exam had the state made additional training courses available. Since the exam, on Feb. 23, the state posted additional resources on its website.

“They could have the testing company give us practice questions,” Adelman said. “We need a full test. We need to be able to give the students a full test, like 60 questions… All we had to prepare for the new tests are the old tests.”

Having a full practice test available to students helps teachers prepare them for the rigor and format of the exam, he said.

“It’s kind of like taking the SAT. If you are familiar with the format, you go into the test more confident,” he said.

Edison students, like in other parts of Virginia, also saw longer test times. Because students are not allowed to leave an unfinished exam unaccompanied, teachers make trips with them to the bathroom.

“Some students were taking so much time that we had to arrange their lunch or have lunch brought to them,” Adelman said.

Edison saw its math SOL scores drop, but Adelman said this is in line with how the school performed when a new social studies SOL was first adopted.

“We experienced a significant drop. In geometry and Algebra II we were still above the state average. In Algebra, we were lower,” he said.

An additional issue under the new math SOLs was that student cut scores were not approved by the Board of Education until after testing began, Adelman said.

“I think the state did those kids a disservice in not having those cut scores before the test,” he said. Normally, students take the exam, and their results come back quickly, allowing teachers to offer remediation to students who fail the exam so that they can retake an expedited exam within the week.

“In this case, we had five or six weeks pass and here we had the kids moving on to other classes [under the spring semester] and we’ve got to track them down and tell them they’ve got to come after school for remediation. Those kids are saying, ‘I’ve already passed the class?’”

Added rigor was not an issue of concern Adelman said, adding that test scores will rise again as teachers and students become familiar with the test format.

The Department of Education has said fall SOL scores do not represent the likely outcomes of spring SOL scores.

“The 2009 Mathematics Standards of Learning and corresponding assessments are designed to ensure that Virginia public school students are truly college-and-career ready when they graduate from high school,” the Department of Education said in a February news release on the scores. Students may sit for multiple retakes of failed exams, which must be passed in order to earn a diploma.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com